Oddcast episode

Dylan Burns on Providence, Fate, and Dualism in Antiquity

If, like Milton’s devils (Paradise Lost, Book II), when confronted with the problems of ‘Fix’d fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute’, you find yourself ‘in wandering mazes lost’, you should speak with Dylan Burns.

In this two-part interview we get into the subject-matter of Burns’ recent book Did God Care? Providence, Dualism, and Will in Later Greek and Early Christian Philosophy. The book is roughly tripartite (not unlike the Gnostic Tripartite Tractate, which comes up a lot in Part II), looking at Providence, Dualism, and Will. In Part I we discuss the first two, Providence – the idea of a divinely, created order in the universe which works for the good – and Dualism – the idea that evil is, in some way, a real thing, and therefore, understandably causes problems for any idea of providence. Topics discussed in this wide-ranging interview include:

  • An introduction suggesting that lovers of western esotericism should care about providence and similar ideas,
  • Some philosophic background, including discussions of important source-texts (Plato’s dialogues, and especially the Timæus, Phædrus, and Myth of Er; Aristotle’s Nicomachæan Ethics, and the Stoics), and
  • Tricky ideas like ‘what is up to us’ (τὸ ἐφ’ ἡμῖν), Compatibilism, and the ‘Lazy Argument’,
  • The ‘multi-tier’ or ‘conditional fate’ model of providence, fate, and human freedom developed in Middle Platonism,
  • The important ‘Persian Great King’ model of divine administration of Providence and Fate presented in the Pseudo-Aristotelean De mundo,
  • The model of ‘mitigated’ or ‘attenuated dualism’ arising in the Abrahamic thought of the Hellenistic and far, far beyond, drawing on apocalyptic texts, most importantly the Book of the Watchers, now known from 1 Enoch, which posits genuine evil forces at work in the universe, and
  • The weird and wonderful (?) things that happen when both of these currents of thinking about providence and fate are brought together in Gnostic texts like On the Creation of the World, the Trimorphic Protennoia, and the Apocryphon of John, wherein we find peculiar, human-centred models of providence which do not encompass much of the world at all beyond the plēroma and the individual ‘knower’ or gnostic.

Interview Bio:

Dylan Burns is Assistant Professor of the History of Esotericism in Late Antiquity at the University of Amsterdam’s HHP. He is an editor of Brill’s Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies series. His many publications deal with ancient Gnosticism, Platonistic and Platonising religious movements, Platonism and ancient philosophy more generally, as well as the wider field of western esotericism studies. His most recent book at the time of writing is Did God Care? Providence, Dualism, and Will in Later Greek and Early Christian Philosophy.

Recommended Reading:

  • Amand, Dom David. Fatalisme et liberté dans l’Antiquité grecque. Recherches sur la survivance de l’argumentation morale antifataliste de Carnéade chez les philosophes grecs et les théologiens chrétiens des quatre premiers siècles. Recueil de Travaux d’Histoire et de Philologie, 3e série, 19e fasc. Louvain: Bibliothèque de l’Université, 1945.
  • Bergjan, Silke-Petra. Der Fürsorgende Gott, Der Begriff der ΠΡΟΝΟΙΑ Gottes in der apologetischen Literatur der Alten Kirche. Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte 81. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2002.
  • Bobzien, Susanne. Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Burns, Dylan M. “Providence, Creation, and Gnosticism According to the Gnostics.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 24:1 (2016): 55–79.
  • Camplani, Alberto. “Bardesane et les bardesanites.” Annuaires de l’École des hautes études 112 (2003): 29–50.
  • Corrigan, Kevin and John D. Turner. Plotinus. Ennead VI.8. On the Voluntary and on the Free Will of the One. Translation with an Introduction and Commentary. The Enneads of Plotinus With Philosophical Commentaries. Las Vegas; Zürich; Athens: Parmenides Publishing, 2017.
  • d’Hoine, Pieter and Gerd van Riel, eds. Fate, Providence and Moral Responsibility in Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Thought: Studies in Honour of Carlos Steel. AMP 1. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2014.
  • Denzey (Lewis), Nicola. Cosmology and Fate in Gnosticism and Graeco-Roman Antiquity: Under Pitiless Skies. Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies 81. Leiden: Brill, 2013.
  • Dihle, Albrecht. The Theory of Will in Classical Antiquity. Sather Classical Lectures 48. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
  • Frede, Dorothea. “Theodicy and Providential Care in Stoicism.” Pages 85–117 in Traditions of Theology: Studies in Hellenistic Theology, its Background and Aftermath. Edited by Dorothea Frede and André Laks. PA 89. Leiden: Brill, 2002.
  • Frede, Michael. A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought. Sather Classical Lectures 68. Berkeley; Los Angeles; Oxford: University of California Press, 2011.
  • Hegedus, Tim. Early Christianity and Ancient Astrology. Patristic Studies 6. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.
  • Jourdan, Fabienne and Rainer Hirsch-Luipold. Die Wurzel allen Übels. Vorstellungen über die Herkunft des Bösen und schlechten in der Philosophie und Religion des 1.–4. Jahrhunderts. Ratio Religionis Studien 3. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014.
  • Karamanolis, George E. The Philosophy of Early Christianity. Ancient Philosophies. London: Routledge, 2014.
  • Koch, Hal. Pronoia und Paideusis. Studien über Origenes und sein Verhältnis zum Platonismus. Berlin; Leipzig: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1932.
  • Reydams-Schils, Gretchen J. Demiurge and Providence: Stoic and Platonist Readings of Plato’s ‘Timaeus.’ Turnhout: Brépols, 1999.
  • Sharples, Robert W.  “Threefold Providence: the History and Background of a Doctrine.” Pages 107–27 in Ancient Approaches to Plato’s ‘Timaeus’. Edited by Robert W. Sharples and Anne D. R. Sheppard. BICSSup 78. London: University of London, 2003.
  • Theiler, Willy. “Tacitus und die antike Schicksalslehre.” Pages 46–103 in Forschungen zum Neuplatonismus. Edited by Willy Theiler. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1966.
  • Wasserman, Emma. “Beyond Apocalyptic Dualism: Ranks of Divinities in 1 Enoch and Daniel.” Pages 189–99 in “The One Who Sows Bountifully”: Essays in Honor of Stanley K. Stowers. Edited by Caroline Johnson Hodge, Saul M. Olyan, Daniel Ullucci, and Emma Wasserman. Brown Judaic Studies 356. Providence: Brown University Press, 2013.
  • Williams, Michael Allen. “Higher Providence, Lower Providences and Fate in Gnosticism and Middle Platonism.” Pages 483–507 in Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. Edited by Richard T. Wallis and Jay Bregman. SNAM 6. Albany: SUNY Press, 1992.


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